OD in a changing climate
What’s our role – and responsibility – in addressing the most pressing global issue of our times?
The summer of 2019 witnessed a number of unprecedented extreme weather and climate events: the highest ever recorded temperature of 38.7 degrees in the UK and 45.9 degrees in France; a heatwave of over 30 days in India, topping 48 degrees Celsius; the largest wildfires in the Amazon and Arctic; and the highest recorded levels of ice melt in Greenland.
The world is already on average one degree warmer than it was just two centuries ago, before the Industrial Revolution. Without transformative interventions to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it is on track to hit 3 to 4 degrees’ warming towards the end of this century, a climate not seen on Earth for around three million years when sea levels were up to 40m higher than today.
As well as a climate crisis, we are also in the midst of a wider environmental emergency. Extinction rates are one hundred times faster than without human impacts and whilst the human population of the world has doubled since 1970, wild animal populations have halved. Plastic is calculated to be entering the oceans at a rate of eight million tonnes a year and has spread throughout the food chain. Water stress and land degradation is increasing crops failures and contributing to mass migration. So inevitably this environmental crisis is a very human one too.
Governments and companies are waking up to the challenge and many are now setting ambitious targets. The Paris Agreement, signed up to by all countries globally (though with the US now planning to exit), sets the goal of keeping global heating to a 1.5 degrees maximum but has failed to extract individual country commitments or pathways ambitious enough to deliver this goal. As it stands the UK is the only country to set a Net Zero (greenhouse gas emissions) target for 2050 and many consider this too late. A number of large companies, like Nestle and L’Oreal, with a combined value of over £2.3trn and more than 4.2 million employees, have set similar “science-based targets” of Net Zero by 2050. All have other sustainability targets too, many based on the Sustainable Development Goals, such as Unilever’s and Sainsbury’s pledges to halve plastic use by 2025.
What does this mean for OD? Firstly, without a doubt, the way that business is being done today must be transformed, radically and urgently. From revolutionizing supply chains to reduce the carbon intensity of our food systems (food is responsible for around 25% of global emissions) to innovating new packaging and transport solutions to transforming the money systems, the level and speed of change has to be commensurate with the scale and pace of the challenges. Secondly, these challenges are truly wicked – they create new problems as fast as they solve others. Want an alternative to single use plastic cutlery? Cut down trees in Siberia to provide wooden alternatives. Problem moved, not solved. Thirdly, they are deeply emotive. Over 85% of us in the UK are now worried about climate change and climate anxiety is an increasing concern, particularly amongst young people. The issues are values-laden – our ‘edges of empathy’ (how widely we cast our net of concern) inform our feelings of denial, shame, guilt and anger.
Organisation Development professionals know a lot about how to lead change, particularly emotive and values-led change. Many of us have deep experience in supporting leaders in shifting cultures, building collaborative alliances across organisational boundaries (an essential in driving necessary innovation and supply chain restructuring) and in designing operating models that reflect changing strategic needs and align to new organisational purpose. We can coach and cultivate the abilities needed to deliver new business models and design systems and organisations that reflect changes in values and, more broadly, paradigms.
In most instances the only impediment to bringing our expertise more wholly to this work is the fear we don’t know enough, that we don’t have the expertise. That is not a luxury that we can any longer afford. We can seek out and connect with the expertise – the sustainability professionals – already in our organisations (if we haven’t already) and/or we build a network of knowledgeable experts across business, industry, academia. Most crucially, we can use our facilitative and group process abilities to bring people together to elicit new ideas and ways of working, to build trust quickly. It is one of the most powerful capabilities we, as OD professionals, can offer, and we need as much of it as we can get right now.
Dr Alexandra Stubbings, DProf MSc CMI